At a dusty military base in northeastern Jordan, Specialist Kennedy Sanders drove excavators and graders. When he had free time, he liked to spend it knitting or feeding his sneaker habit by purchasing rare pairs of Nike Dunks online that he would have his mother unpack over FaceTime.
He spent many hours joking and hanging out with his friend and platoon mate in his Army Reserve engineer unit, Specialist Breonna Moffett, who was sleeping on a nearby shelf and hoped to celebrate her return home this summer by attending a Nicki concert. Minaj.
The two died Sunday, along with another soldier from their unit, Sgt. William Jerome Rivers, in what the Pentagon said was a drone attack by an Iranian-backed militia.
Both specialists were heavy equipment operators doing hard work in a hostile region. They were also young black girls from Georgia who loved hip-hop, laughing with friends, and the military. And they were representative of the type of Americans who increasingly serve in the military these days.
Black women make up about 36 percent of all enlisted women in the military, compared to just 14 percent of the civilian female population, and they have a huge presence in the highest enlisted ranks: more than half of Army sergeants major are black.
“If you think about the military, most people think about men, but actually African-American women are overrepresented,” said Brenda Moore, a sociology professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo, who has studied this trend for decades.
The reasons are simple, he said. The Army was one of the first large employers to eliminate structural racism from its organization. Although other forms of racism persisted, the military in the civil rights era was one of the few places where black women could find open doors and equal opportunities. Military service comes with benefits that may be uncommon in civilian blue-collar jobs, and recruits don’t need to know someone or have a degree to be hired.
“The military was seen as a good business,” Moore said. “You could make something of yourself, provide for your family and do something honorable.”
Today, women like Specialist Sanders and Specialist Moffett fill often overlooked positions in supply, logistics and healthcare positions supporting combat units.
Specialist Moffett, 23, from Savannah, Georgia, enlisted in the Army Reserve in 2019, right after high school, and soon learned to drive construction equipment like bulldozers and graders. She was the second woman in his family to enlist in the military. Her mother also served.
It’s “basically a family tradition,” said Dereima Weaver, a friend since high school.
Ms Weaver said her friend was happy to have joined. “She loved the adventure and she loved the service,” she said.
Among her Army Reserve commitments, Specialist Moffett worked as a civilian home care provider for people with disabilities. United Cerebral Palsy of Georgia Savannah Regional Director Sharon Mitchell described Specialist Moffett in a statement as “a deeply passionate advocate for the people we support.”
Her platoon partner, Specialist Sanders, 24, came from Waycross, a city in the southeastern part of the state where the median household income is half the national average. Her longtime friend Bre Etheridge said in an interview that it was the kind of place where “some people get stuck and can’t get out.”
“Others, if they are motivated and want to do great things with their lives, like Kennedy, they go to college or join the service,” he said.
Specialist Sanders grew up on a street full of kids and with several brothers, and he quickly learned to keep up while playing football and basketball. In high school, he participated in three sports. He tried to go to college, but didn’t finish; Returning to Waycross, he worked a series of low-paying jobs, including as an assistant at the pharmacy in the small town center.
One of her best friends had joined the Marine Corps and was learning to be a radiology technician; After speaking with her, Specialist Sanders decided to enlist in the military. He soon had health care coverage, retirement benefits and a marketable skill, and he was earning educational benefits to pay for another shot at college.
“It was an adventure for her, too,” her mother, Oneida Oliver-Sanders, said in an interview. “She was making lifelong friends and she was getting promoted. She loved him.”
Specialist Sanders was so proud of her service that she went in uniform to visit schools and speak with students at Waycross.
“It meant a lot to her,” her mother said. “I wanted the kids to see that they had this opportunity too.”
He said his daughter had found a kindred spirit in Specialist Moffett. Neither of them, Oliver-Sanders said, gave much thought to ending up in danger.
When they deployed in August, they were initially told they could go to Syria, where the United States has about 900 troops. Specialist Sanders was worried. But they learned that they would instead be sent to Tower 22, a small base in Jordan near the Syrian border, which seemed safer.
At the base, Oliver-Sanders said, her daughter’s life seemed routine and uneventful. Some attempted drone attacks on the base came up in phone conversations, he said, but mostly they talked about his favorite shows on Netflix or the latest pair of sneakers he added to Specialist Sanders’ collection.
His enlistment was almost over and he was thinking about his future. Deploying to a remote desert area with occasional drone strikes might have put some people off. But on Saturday, when her mother spoke with her for the last time, Specialist Sanders said he had decided to re-enlist in the military.
Audio produced by Jack D’Isidoro.